Between the Internet, television news and social media, it seems there is a new story about heart disease nearly every day. While a great deal of information is out there, not all of it is accurate. Considering that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide — accounting for 17.5 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization, and growing — having the right information can help you keep your heart healthy.
The following are six of the most common myths about heart disease, and the facts you need to know.
Women don’t have to worry about heart disease.
Not true. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among both men and women; in fact, a woman dies from heart disease every minute in the United States. Additionally, women may have more subtle heart attack symptoms than men. While both may feel sudden chest pain at the time of the attack, women may experience symptoms such as chest tightness, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath up to a month before a heart attack. Women who have these symptoms should have them checked out right away.
I have to exercise a lot.
Many people mistakenly believe they need a great deal of exercise in order to reap the cardiovascular benefits. As a result, they become discouraged and give up on exercise altogether. However, you don’t need to run a marathon to help your heart. Even moderate levels of exercise are sufficient to improve your heart health. Aim to get 30-45 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, jogging or swimming at least three days a week. Plus, you don’t have to do it all at once; three 10-minute walks, for example, fit the bill. An activity tracking device can help you monitor your progress throughout the day. A good goal to start with is walking 10,000 steps a day.
A vegetarian diet is best for my heart.
Following a plant-based diet is strongly preferred for heart health, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. If you eat meat, focus on lean protein sources such as chicken and fish, and minimize red meat. Build the rest of your diet around whole grains, fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber and nutrients and low in fat. Look up the glycemic index online, and choose most of your foods from the lower end of the scale. Low-glycemic foods also can help you maintain a stable weight and keep your blood sugar balanced.
Yes, some fats are harmful for your heart, but some actually help. Ideally, you want to minimize saturated fats, such as those found in beef, lard, full-fat dairy and other animal products. They can increase your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels, which can clog your arteries. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from plants like avocados, olives and walnuts, can help increase your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which helps keep arteries clear. Remember that all fats are high in calories, so use them in moderation.
E-cigarettes are safer than tobacco.
Decades ago, people didn’t think smoking tobacco was harmful; today, we know the truth. Similarly, we currently don’t know the long-term effects of e-cigarettes. According to a 2014 report from the World Health Organization, existing evidence shows that e-cigarette aerosol is not merely “water vapor,” as is often claimed in the marketing of these products; it does, in fact contain nicotine and a number of toxic ingredients. There is no evidence that “vaping” is any safer than conventional smoking. And studies have shown that e-cigarette users do not actually quit cigarette smoking more successfully.
Statins are bad for me.
Eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising may not always be enough to keep cholesterol levels in healthy ranges, especially if you have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. In such cases, statin medications used to lower levels of cholesterol can help. While statins may cause side effects such as muscle pain or damage, digestive issues or liver problems for some people, the benefits may outweigh the risks. Discuss pros and cons with your physician to decide whether a statin is right for you.
Martin Charlat, MD, is a cardiologist with Scripps, which has the highest-ranked heart care program in San Diego County. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps. For information, visit www.scripps.org/CNP or call 858-207-4317.